The Saws of My Father

sawsI have three crosscut saws I never use. One I bought myself soon after I got married because I needed to cut something, and it seemed like a basic tool that I needed to have. The other two came from my father.

He always had a crosscut saw hanging from a peg over his work bench, just as I do now. In fact, my work bench is an imitation of his, right down to the 4x4s I use for the legs and the 2x6s for the top. It’s a design my dad developed over the years, and when we moved, one of the first things he did was build a new one.

My father died eight years ago this week. After I cleaned out his house, I collected all his tools and moved them into my garage. Many had rusted or deteriorated, left unused for too long in the Central Texas humidity during final years of his life. I was saddened by the state of their neglect, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away.

Now, my wife and I are “downsizing,” embracing the latest financial fad of middle-aged empty nesters, and one of my tasks is cleaning out the garage. Tool redundancy would be a logical place to start, yet after several months, it remains an uncompleted chore.

I open a drawer and see my father’s saws. I open another one and see his stainless-steel Black & Decker electric drill, a relic from Eisenhower’s America that probably is worth more as an antique than a tool. But it still works and its housing shines with the memories of all the holes my father and I drilled with it. There’s a soldering gun that hasn’t been used since my dad and I wired my model railroad when I was 11. There are hammers, wrenches, screwdrivers, hacksaws, backsaws and coping saws – a montage of mid-Twentieth century manual labor.

They are more than the touchstone of childhood memories. Tools were a part of who my father was, even after he shed his blue-collar career to become an academic. If he were to walk into my garage today, he would look at these unused, rusted remembrances and ask why I’ve kept them. He had a word for such sentimental retention – “junk.” (Decades ago, my mother boxed up family memorabilia, and my father labeled it “four generations of stuff – some junk.”)

I sort through the tools, moving them in the drawers but not actually moving them closer to the door. More than any of my father’s possessions that I still have, the tools feel as if they harbor his soul. I feel his presence most strongly when I pick up his favorite hammer or pull out the screwdriver that still bears the name of the family electrical business, M.G. Steffy & Sons, which dissolved in 1972.

The tools reflect a lifetime spent working with this hands, whether it was fixing a balky light switch in our home or rebuilding a 2,300-year-old Greek merchant ship half a world away.

To me, they also serve as a reminder of his overwhelming patience. My father never got visibly angry or frustrated. His tools were never thrown in frustration, and he never broke something he was working on because it wasn’t cooperating. If things weren’t going well, he would pour another cup of coffee or light a cigarette and think it through. I search for that patience within myself daily, yet it eludes me.

I spent countless hours watching him work with those tools, then helping him, and then having him watch me. But a generational chain was broken. My ancestors progressed from farmer to stonemason to electrician. They used tools to make a living. I work with my hands as a hobby, a diversion from the never-finished job of tapping out thoughts on a computer keyboard. My own children, exposed only to the occasional birdhouse-building scout project or the mandatory instruction of my “car camp,” have little interest in the excess tools in my garage.

Do I need three crosscut saws? Two hacksaws? Four hammers (three claw, one ball peen)? Three wooden mallets? A wood plane? Monkey wrenches that haven’t turned a pipe fitting in 50 years?

I do. Not in a practical sense, of course, but those old tools remind me of a willingness to take on every project, of a patience to do it well, and of the quiet satisfaction that comes with a board well cut or a screw well turned.

I close the drawers again and move on to the nearby shelf. Old door knobs and radiator hoses from a Honda Pilot? Those can go.

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Wilbur Ross and Rust Belt renaissance

President-elect Donald Trump has picked billionaire investor and turnaround expert Wilbur Ross to serve as commerce secretary, according to the New York Times. It’s an interesting choice. Ross spent years buying companies in long-suffering industries such as steel, textiles and coal.

In the early 2000s, I did a profile of Ross for Bloomberg Markets magazine. There’s no link available, but Ross had just bought the old LTV steel plants in Cleveland out of bankruptcy and restarted them — albeit with far fewer employees and much less management. It’s a tough business, wringing decades of inefficiency out of these Rust Belt manufacturing companies. As I wrote in my Chronicle column in 2005, it often involves breaking promises to workers that companies made decades ago. And while it may save some jobs in the U.S., it doesn’t mean the companies remain U.S.-based. In the case of steel, for example, Ross ultimately sold to foreign owners.

I’ve interviewed Ross dozens of times since the 1980s, when he was known as “The King of Bankruptcy” for his investments in failed companies. In 1990, he was hired by the bondholders of a failing Atlantic City casino, the Trump Taj Mahal. Ross objected to Trump’s proposed debt restructuring, which would have left Trump holding all the equity. After hearing Trump’s proposal, Ross joked: “It’s a little too early for Christmas.” Outraged, Trump demanded that the bondholders fire Ross. They refused and threatened to throw the casino into bankruptcy. Trump agreed to give up half the equity.

Apparently, all is forgiven. Ross’s contrarian views, his extensive international business experience and his background in turning around struggling companies make him an interesting choice to run the Commerce Department. I haven’t been impressed with many of Trump’s Cabinet-level picks. Ross is the most intriguing choice so far.

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About those anti-Trump Protestors…

000d2613-800Dear Mr. President-Elect,

I know you have some time before you take office, and you’re still learning all that this new job will entail. But even in these early days, you have a chance to heal the wounds of the campaign, to act presidential. I am disappointed that you have chosen not to.

Many people are not happy with your election, and they have taken to the streets to protest. This makes me and many others uncomfortable because it seems an affront to the peaceful transition of power. But what makes me more uncomfortable is your response.

Americans have a constitutional right to peaceably assemble, and, so far, most of those assembled have been peaceable. I hope they remain so.

Your response, issued via a tweet, was to complain that they had treated you unfairly. Perhaps, but it doesn’t matter. You are about to become the leader of our government, a government of the people – all the people, including those who protest against you. They are your protestors. You now represent them — indeed, you work for them — just as much as the Ku Klux Klan members who are planning a victory parade for you in North Carolina.

As a candidate, you can divide and win, as president, you cannot.

Reports, mostly on social media, have relayed incidents – fortunately isolated ones – in which people claiming to be your followers have harassed people of color. While these may not represent the feelings of all your supporters, some apparently believe that your election makes hatred, bigotry and threats of violence against minorities acceptable.

As president, you must tell them it doesn’t. You owe the country that. How you respond sets the tone for your presidency and the America it will oversee.

You were elected president, but you were not popularly elected. More people voted for your opponent. That is the way our system works, and it does not delegitimize your presidency. It does, however, underscore the division of our nation, a division that on election night you pledged to heal.

Your tweet in response to the protestors flies in the face of that pledge. America cannot succeed – it cannot be great — if our elected leaders simply pander to one group that feels excluded from society by denigrating or ignoring the concerns of another. You won, in part, because your opponent failed to recognize this.

It may, indeed, seem unfair that many people are so upset by your election that they are openly protesting it. You are not the first president to be treated unfairly. Just ask the man whose hand your shook in the Oval Office this week (or, for that matter, any of his predecessors).

Your tweeted response also included one of your favorite themes: it was the media’s fault. As a creation of the media yourself, you know better. It may be convenient to have a handy scapegoat, but you cannot blame the media, foreign governments, immigrants or any other outsiders for the problems that will occur under your administration. Your party will dominate all the houses of government. It’s been almost a century since any president has had such control. That is a tremendous opportunity, but one that doesn’t allow for excuses. Just as the successes will be yours, so will the failures.

You preside over an America in which an angry majority has reasserted itself, and that is its right. Our nation, however, was founded on the principal that government also protects the rights of the minority and the disenfranchised. That is how our democracy has endured. You are now the line that stands between that ideal and mob rule.

People are protesting not simply because they lost an election, but because you campaigned on the message that they did not matter, that by excluding them, America can be “great again.” That may have been a successful campaign strategy, but it has made your job harder. As president, you must address their concerns. You must recognize the growing diversity of our nation and the strength that’s derived from it. In short, you must be America’s president, not the mouthpiece for the anger of some.

Those days are over. You got the job. Now, you must live up to it.


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Remembering Darrell Preston

Someone asked me how old Darrell Preston was when he died earlier this week. Even though I’d known him for almost 30 years, I realized I didn’t know his age. So I did what Darrell would have done: I pulled his driver’s license records. He was 55.

I think he would have liked that his obituary required a records search. Had I ever asked him his age? If so, he probably said something like “Oh, I’m sure you have ways of finding that out,” with a sly smile that grew from the corner of his mouth. He loved to dig, and it didn’t matter if it was for a story or just idle curiosity. You knew he considered you a friend if he pulled your property tax records.


Darrell Preston, left, Catherine Smith and me in our Bloomberg days at the 2004 Dallas Press Club Katie Awards. (Darrell accused me of moonlighting as a waiter.)

On my first day at the Dallas Business Journal in 1989, he took me in his old red Jeep C-J to lunch at Chip’s, a greasy burger joint off Central Expressway. Most of the meal was consumed with awkward silence. Darrell was comfortable with silence in a way that few people are. He tended not to notice because his mind was always occupied, but not always with the present conversation.

He asked me what kind of music I liked. I shrugged. The Travelling Wilburys weren’t bad. He nodded, but didn’t say anything. “What about you?” I asked. “Well,” he said, and stared into the distance for a while. I wasn’t yet familiar with his habit of thinking about what he was about to say after he’d started to say it. “My tastes are a little more esoteric.” He didn’t elaborate.

Years later, laughing about the awkwardness of that first meeting, he told me he had been trying to keep me off guard to see how I handled myself.

I soon realized that in the DBJ newsroom Darrell, his desk piled high with files and notes on various investigations, was the guy to beat. He did the stories everyone talked about, stories that he spent months poking around in his spare time. He did the kinds of stories that I wanted to do.

For the next two years, we paced each other, each trying to do bigger, better stories. In the process, friendly competition grew into mutual respect. Then, one day, he paid me the ultimate compliment: he shared a source.

Our deadlines were on Thursdays, and on Fridays, Darrell was usually out of the office, working sources and getting the jump on the next week. The rest of us joked that he was really getting an early start on the weekend, because he often said “I have an interview in far north Dallas, and I’ll probably just go home after that.” Years later, if the weather was particularly nice, I might say to him, “It’s a good day for an interview in far north Dallas.”

Before headsets and cell phones, most reporters cradled the telephone receiver on their shoulder and took notes. Darrell reached over his head with his left hand, holding the receiver to his right ear from the top, and took notes on paper with this right hand. He looked like a contortionist, but he found it oddly relaxing. (Perhaps this explains his later love for yoga.)

When I interviewed for a job at the Dallas Times Herald, Darrell knew before I made it back to the office. As I walked toward my desk, he was holding the Herald in front of his face like Ward Cleaver. After I sat down, he folded it and slapped it on his desk in feigned disgust. “Oh my God. What a piece of shit,” he muttered under his breath. Then as he turned toward his computer he added, “who would ever want to work for that rag?”

I tried not to react, but he didn’t need my confirmation. He’d already nailed the story, and as always, his sources were impeccable. To this day, I don’t know how he found out. I wasn’t even offered the job until the following week.

Darrell went on to run the southwest bureau of the Bond Buyer, breaking news about the arcane world of municipal finance. Technically, he was a boss, but really, he was a coach to younger reporters. He always led by example, and he was at his best when he was digging in the places no one else bothered to look — zagging while everyone else zigged.

By then, I was running the Dallas bureau of Bloomberg, and when Bloomberg wanted to expand its muni coverage in Texas, I knew there was only one man for the job. He spent the next 16 years digging around obscure corners of the financial markets – muni bonds, insurance, pensions – making them more transparent. He broke a lot of news and won national awards that brought long overdue attention for his work.

I left Bloomberg (managing, with great effort, to keep Darrell from finding out first) and moved to Houston, but we got together whenever I went back to Dallas.

A few years ago, I had a book signing at a new store on the northern edge of the Metroplex. No one showed up – except Darrell. He’d driven almost an hour to get there. Let’s go get a drink, he suggested, then spent the next hour pointing out that the book store was too new, the location was bad, the store hadn’t promoted the signing – anything he could think of to make me feel better.

The last time I saw him, he took me to a barbecue place where they served big slabs of meat on butcher paper. We reminisced about the days when we would head to lunch early, to the original Sonny Bryan’s on Inwood, and eat barbecue sitting on tree stumps in the parking lot.

We shared stories of work, but we also talked, as we increasingly did, of family. We had daughters about the same age, and Darrell loved being a father even more than he loved chasing down a good story.

I knew him best as a reporter, but Darrell’s life was not consumed by work. He had a wide range of interests, a broad circle of friends, and countless adventures. His life was too short, but it was well lived.

This past week, I have tried to imagine what my career would have been like without him. Less fun, certainly, but also less successful, because he was the kind of colleague who made you want to try harder, to push yourself a little more.

Perhaps it’s a cliché to say Darrell was a reporter’s reporter, but he truly was. I think of him shuffling into the office, his arms filled with files and notepads. His desktop never knew sunlight. I think of it now, still piled high, I’m told, with the detritus of unfinished investigations, unwritten stories and leads waiting to be chased. With Darrell’s death, a bright light of journalism has been extinguished far too soon. I prefer to believe he has left for one final interview in far north Dallas.




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The search for `why’

Atlantic coverFor the past two years, I’ve been working on a biography of Texas oilman George P. Mitchell, sometimes (erroneously) called “the father of fracking.” Biographies are stories of people’s lives, but they really aren’t about the “who.” “Who was George Mitchell?” is a relatively straightforward question to answer.

Many people may be drawn to a book because they want to know the “how.” “How did George Mitchell change the world by developing fracking?” is an interesting question, but if you spend two years explaining it, you realize every biography attempts to answer the far bigger and more daunting question: why? “Why did George Mitchell develop fracking?” “Why did he pioneer sustainable development at the same time?” “Why did he believe these two seemingly disparate goals went hand-in-hand?”

The why is always the most difficult question, and it’s the question that most often gets lost in shorthand discussions on social media. I don’t post a lot of political stuff for the simple reason that very rarely are we given a chance to understand the why. Too often, the why of politics is drown out by posturing, platitudes and pablum (and, more recently, pugilism).

But I recently got around to reading Jeffrey Goldberg’s excellent piece on President Obama’s foreign policy, which was published in The Atlantic back in April. It’s extremely long but incredibly insightful,thoroughly research and reported, and well-written. Rather than deal with the politics, Goldberg focuses on the policy, on Obama’s thought process and on why he’s made the foreign policy decisions he’s made. Goldberg acknowledges the criticisms, but the piece is really designed to get inside Obama’s logic. In short, it’s all about the why.

You don’t have to agree with Obama’s decisions to be interested with how he came to them. Indeed, the piece points out that even many Democrats within his own administration disagreed strongly with the president. And you might decide, after understanding his logic, that’s he dead wrong. But the point is that at least you’ll understand. Foreign policy is complicated, and the answers aren’t short or easy. The beauty of the “why” lies in unraveling the complexity.


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The problem with software

pc-frustrationThe software industry loves to talk about “solutions.” It’s not clear whose problems some software makers think they’re solving.

For years, I have used a program called Evernote, which syncs notes, webpages, photos and other things you want to save across many different devices. It’s got an add-on that makes clipping, saving and categorizing web pages simple. It’s a pretty handy tool, and it’s free.

Because its free, Evernote is always plugging the upsell. Want to search amongst your documents? Upgrade to “Pro” – a subscription-based service that promises to be even better. No thanks. I’ll stick with what I can see works.

Now, however, Evernote has informed me that if I want to sync its program across more than two devices, I will have to pay — and a subscription, no less, not a one-time fee. For years, I have had my Evernote account on six devices. Why does software which does essentially the same thing every time you use it — indeed, that’s the reason for using it— warrant a subscription? What will I get next month that I’m not getting this month?

I can only assume that Evernote’s revenue model isn’t working, and it needs a “solution” — one that comes at my expense.

I spent 12 years working for Mike Bloomberg, a man who made a fair amount of money in the data and information business. One of Mike’s first rules was that once you offer customers something, you never take it away. So while new functions were constantly being added to the Bloomberg terminal, nothing was removed from it, and the price stayed the same. (The pricing model may have changed in the 12 years since I’ve been gone.)

The point is that Evernote is taking away something it once offered me at the agreed-upon price, which in this case happened to be nothing. The fact that it was free doesn’t change the equation, other than Evernote clearly doesn’t care if I stop using its product since I’m not paying for it anyway.

But I would be far more likely to pay if I didn’t feel Evernote will simply keep gouging me.If it changes the terms once, how do I know it won’t decide to limit that number again in the future? It’s model is: if you like a little, you should pay for a lot.

There’s a better approach: Show me what your product can do, and charge me a fair price for it. Let me decide if it’s worth it. Don’t lock features away behind a pay wall. Put everything on the table and let the product speak for itself.

That’s the model used by another software program I use, Aeon Timeline, a versatile tool for building and comparing custom timelines. It’s handy for book projects like my upcoming biography of Texas oilman George Mitchell.

I knew Aeon was a great program because it allowed me to use it for free for 30 or 40 tries. During that time, I got to figure out just how it would work for me, and what I could do with it. I wound up buying it before my free trial was up. In fact, I bought multiple licenses.

I’m sure Aeon doesn’t have the revenue stream or the broad appeal that Evernote does, but it definitely has the right approach to selling software, at least from a company loyalty standpoint.

Unlike most products, too much software is sold incomplete. Software developers want us to buy into the idea of their products’ potential, then convince us to pay more to make it realize that potential. It’s a little like buying a car even though it doesn’t have wheels because Chevrolet says it is planning to add 19-inch custom aluminum rims later.

Software, of course, will always need upgrades. But when companies knowingly stunt the product offerings, it’s reminiscent of the old bait-and-switch tactics of used car dealers.

I know Evernote works, and I may even break down and pay for the subscription, but I don’t trust the company. Its relentless attempts at upselling show it is more concerned with its own revenue than with providing a service to customers. This may be a “solution” for its business model, but it makes me want to find a different program that does much the same thing. In other words, it makes me want to find my own “solution” — one that I’d be willing to pay for if I felt the company would treat me fairly.

If anyone knows of any, I’m open to suggestions.

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How Michael Dell low-balled investors

0813_Business_680x382In my first story for Texas Monthly, almost two years ago, I chronicled the buyout saga at Dell Inc. In that piece, I predicted that Michael Dell would prevail in the management-led buyout, which he did, but not before activist investor Carl Icahn convinced him to put more money in the deal, which he did.

It turns out, though, Icahn may not have gone far enough. This week, a Delaware judge ruled that Michael Dell and his partners shortchanged shareholders by more than $6 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Unfortunately, it’s too late for most of those shareholders. As the Journal notes:

The victory is a hollow one for former Dell investors, few of whom are eligible for compensation due to the intricacies of Delaware law.

All told, the buyers likely will owe a handful of former shareholders who challenged the deal about $35 million, including interest.

It’s one more reminder that management-led buyouts rarely work to investors’ benefit.


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